The Lite Filipino
I hold my phone impatiently to my face as I wait for the image of the cover of Vogue Philippines’ first maiden issue to load. A knock at the door tears my eyes away from the screen just as the bottom half of the cover appeared. “Hey, sorry, it took a while. Taste it, see if they’ve got your order right this time around,” my sister jests behind the cracked door, handing me my frequent dose of what I expect to be plain dark-roasted caffeine. I frowned at her slightly but was eager to attend to the matter gleaming through the rectangle box on my left hand. “I’ll take it. Thanks.” I go back to my initial spot on the bed, studying the display on my phone to see that the picture has fully loaded. With a dry smile, I took an underwhelmed sip, “Why’s this mixed again?”
Chloe Magno is the face of Vogue Philippines’ first maiden issue, which came out in August 2022. Being a Filipino-American model, Magno invoked an array of reactions among spectators regarding her racial background and the ubiquity of Filipino-American representation in the industry. Whether we agree that these appointed figures properly suffice as Filipino representation, one can’t deny that there is an oversaturation of mixed-race personalities (usually of European descent) in both our international and local media.
But what does it mean to “look Filipino”?
Your typical local is a short-built folk with a caramel complexion who has withstood the scorching of the sun on her country’s lands. The phenotypically classified features of Filipinos also include a flat nose, almond eyes, and jet black hair.
Turning on the TV to Pretty Little Liars as a child, and having found out Shay Mitchell was Filipino after a quick Google search left me bewildered. She possessed parts of my features—my morena skin and my black hair—but she didn’t speak my tongue; she was half white, and I didn’t see all of myself on the screen. The height of our nose bridges widely spelled out our differences.
Growing up watching Vanessa Hudgens, Liza Soberano, and James Reid and this progressing trend of casting part-white actors for TV roles, it has become apparent to me that what we consider to be “Filipino beauty” is heavily concentrated in eurocentrism. It has become apparent that our Filipino-ness, in order to sell, should be adulterated. We are not to say that mixed-race Filipinos are any less of their native origins, but there starts to be a fatigue when the media consistently treats your ethnic features as luggage, an encumbrance compared to the portability that a half-white person owns. A lightness that carries them to the big screens and renders them on billboards.
So, who qualifies to represent Filipinos?
Filipinos are very proud of their roots, hoisting up and celebrating the next famous and successful personality who has a drop of Pinoy heritage in them. We are constantly looking for ambassadors for our nation. Witnessing Pia Wurtzbach snatching the Miss Universe 2015 crown, I didn’t mind that she was yet another Caucasian-Filipino to the pool; she spoke the language naturally and expressed so much of her indigenous identity. It then dawned on me that my lamentation over misrepresentation lies not so much in a person’s ancestral makeup as in their cultural literacy.
Our Filipino identity should not only be celebrated in the envoy’s genetics, but in their socio-cultural participation, being a spokesperson of one of our many dialects and wearing our flag’s colors on their barong sleeves. Along with a white-passing appearance, there is a recurring theme of mixed-race actors in the media who proudly endorse their Filipino background, but who don’t seem to have any direct experience of their ethnic culture or any sort of integration of it in their lives.
But why does this seem to pose a problem?
Foreign-blooded celebrities get their advantage from their proximity to whiteness, placing upon them a privileged responsibility to represent the ethnic groups they are a part of, which may, in turn, create a different view of the collective perception of the ethnicity they carry. Their identities are fringed by their mixed racial backgrounds, limiting them from fully representing native and indigenous people from the same ethnological group. Their personalities deliver a significantly different cultural impact since the messenger is still tethered to a Western, European identity. With this, it is possible that the experiences people of color face are overshadowed. It invokes the feeling that their stories and struggles are diluted, watered down by the benefits that are easily included with whiteness.
Additionally, moving beyond Filipino representation to Asians in general in the diaspora, the growing demand for diversity in popular media has made it possible for more half-ethnics to emerge into the mainstream. The harm in this, however, is in the vulnerability of their Asian identities to exotification. As Fendi Wang puts in her article, Why Hollywood’s Asian American lead actors are often also white, “by casting mixed actors as drool-worthy characters to make audiences squeal, Hollywood suggests there is a bliss point of Asian appeal—ethnic enough to satisfy minority groups and palatable enough to maintain Western audiences. Audiences shouldn’t need a “lite” version of an Asian to identify with or find agreeable.”
Why does it all matter?
The inclusion of colored voices has always felt like forced last-minute efforts to incorporate diversity, especially on television, and this experience goes beyond just entertainment. Science, art, business, the beauty industry, and virtually any field is presided over so naturally by white demographics, and the difficulty to diversify these spaces is why conversations regarding this matter hold any merit. It congeals the fact that, as a society, we are still lacking somewhere in between, despite progressive measures for inclusivity. But every chance we take to speak about these issues is an opportunity we take to bridge the gaps. It’s through these that we discover how imperative it is that we revive and strengthen a sense of belongingness and pride towards our identity, starting within our country’s borders first.
I yearn to live through an age where owning natural ethnic features doesn’t need to feel like a liability, something we have to compensate for. When that day surfaces, perhaps I can sit in a movie theater of a Hollywood film or hold the newest magazine issue in a salon, where a little girl next to me with all the features I have would point to and cheer, “Look, she looks just like me!”
Alindogan, L. (2022, April 22). Can we have Filipino representation without centering it on whiteness? Cold Tea Collective. https://coldteacollective.com/filipina-representation-without-whiteness/
bby gang mag. (2021, September 24). Olivia Rodrigo, race, and Asian representation [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9TpRaQYj5d8
Wang, F. (2021, March 30). Why Hollywood’s Asian American lead actors are often also white – Deseret News. Deseret News. https://www.deseret.com/indepth/2021/3/26/22325786/asian-americans-are-hollywoods-new-leading-men-its-not-as-progressive-as-you-think-racism-diversity